• February 29, 2016

JMB headshot photoTo me, the key points raised in my recent talk with Joan Bibelhausen, Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) for Minnesota Litigator readers (or, specifically, the lawyers among you) were: (1) Do not wait until a difficulty becomes a disability; (2) Minnesota lawyers need to take care of ourselves and one another. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is a critical resource that deserves our recognition and support.

Bibelhausen: As the start, I’m not going to put my cell phone in airplane mode. I’m going to put it on vibrate. I have to tell you, we have so many things coming in right now that if my staff needs to get ahold of me and say, “I need to know how to handle this….”

ML Interviewer: You’ve preempted a few different questions that I have, one of which is how big is your staff?

Bibelhausen: We are a staff of 4 at our office. LCL is a non-profit organization, as you know. We have a staff of 4 and we also contract with an employee assistance program (“EAP”), which many other employers also contract with. We contract with them on behalf of the entire legal profession. Your one-lawyer law firm has an EAP, just like large law firms have. It might even be the same people, an outfit called Sand Creek Group.

So we contract with counselors in addition to our employees where people can have access to direct services through us. We do case management outreach, intake, holding hands, getting people to feel okay about asking for help and then moving them to the next best place.

ML Interviewer: When you say case management, I don’t know what you mean…

Bibelhausen: That means that we may refer someone for professional services and then we’ll check and see: Did you get the appointment? Did you feel like your needs are met? What else? Are there other things they’re recommending that we can help you get? Would you like to talk to a peer supporter who’s been where you’ve been before? We don’t have people on all issues, but if someone contacts us, — “I’ve been depressed or I think I’m depressed or I can’t get to sleep at night because I have these thoughts that keep arising, in other words, possible anxiety issues; I need to stop drinking; maybe I need to stop drinking….” — those kinds of issues…Then we’re going to have peer supporters who can say, “I’ve been where you are. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I’m going to tell you what I did. I’m going to tell you what some of my struggles were and some of the things that were most helpful and I’ll listen to what you have to say….”

ML InterviewerWhere do the peer supporters come from?

Bibelhausen: Some of them are former LCL clients. Some are people who read about us. They might read your Minnesota Litigator post and say, “I’d really like to volunteer there. I think I have something to offer.” For example, a lawyer who thinks that they’ve figured some things out about issues that are often stressful such as how to deal with difficult clients, might say, “I’ve gotten  through this.   I’m in a pretty good place now. If somebody needs to talk to somebody who’s been there, I’m glad to be that.”

We have more volunteers who are recovering from mental health and substance issues than we have who can help others deal with the stress of being a lawyer, or a law student, or a judge.  We need more people who are in a good place and who would be happy to sit down with others.  A lot of people get that through bar associations, they get that through other colleagues inside or outside of their workplace or they find it in a setting like this where you’ve got an office share. But sometimes people don’t have a resource or they’re afraid to ask.

We’d love to have a bigger network of, “I am willing to be a volunteer. I’m willing to agree to LCL’s absolute confidentiality policies and I’d like to be there for somebody else.” We offer one-on-one training as well as group training and really help to prepare people to learn how to listen effectively and be supportive to someone.

ML Interviewer: How many people do you have serving in that volunteer or mentoring capacity?

Bibelhausen: In any given month, I’m probably tracking between 60 and 70. Somebody might not do something in a particular month. I’m sure there are people that don’t tell us what they did. Just to back-up on that, we prepare a report every month that is submitted to ultimately the Supreme Court. It gives no names or any breakdown, but it says here is how many volunteers put in how many hours. Over the course of a year, there might be 150 people or maybe 200 people who actually provide volunteer service and then there’s a lot of people who might be volunteers who may be used to be more active, but they still want to stay engaged and get our emails or whatever we might send out. They may be doing things that they choose not to report. We don’t know.

ML Interviewer: Is information about the number of Minnesota lawyers that you help set out in a publicly available document?

Bibelhausen: On an annual basis, it’s in our annual report [ed. note: linked here].

ML InterviewerYou mentioned that now is particularly demanding time for your office. Why is that?

Bibelhausen: Because of the ABA/Hazelden study that was just released showing the serious issues now being faced by lawyers – substance use, depression, and other issues We’re getting calls, and that’s a good thing. It’s a busy time and we’re where we want to be: where people are comfortable saying, “I need to talk to somebody.”

For the most part, most of the ABA/Hazelden data do not surprise people who are working in this field, to lawyer assistance programs, to bar counsel in some states, and to other people who might be directly connected with lawyers who are distressed. However, to the greater bar, to have this actually be coming out as a vetted study, research that meets all of the criteria for reliability, is making it a topic for discussion. Instead of, “Oh well, that’s not my problem. LCL will take care of it. They’re over there. That’s good, but I don’t need them and I’m certainly not going to give them any money,” that sort of thing…..Now it’s, “This is an issue for all of us, isn’t it?”

Leadership in bar associations are talking about it and saying, “Maybe we need to be looking at this a little bit more seriously. Maybe this is a profession issue.” There’s a lot of surprise among people who don’t work in this field regularly.

The one surprise for those of us who do work in the area is the age demographic. In previous studies, which were much smaller samples, we found that, as people spent more time in practice, got older, the level of alcohol misuse and other symptoms of distress grew. What this study clearly showed, is that in the first 10 years of practice, it’s the highest. Anecdotally, we can say, that makes perfect sense given today’s legal market. That makes perfect sense given the generation that is accustomed to being available at all times via social media, smartphones, everything else, and who maybe had never thought about the idea that you can step away and have things turned off.

Tell me a little bit about how you … You come down here during business hours. You’re a bike commuter. That’s a really excellent stress management way to put a buffer between work and home. How do you draw the line in terms of being available at 8:00 at night or at 3 on a Saturday afternoon? What have you learned to do as a lawyer? How do you tell your clients who might really need you that if you really need me, it’s okay and then maybe you say they’re going to have to pay extra?

ML Interviewer: Generally, my challenge as a solo lawyer is getting enough work in the door and not having too much. I don’t really have to deal with what large firm lawyers have to deal with, which I think of as an insatiable hunger for their time by both their clients and by their law firms.

I have no problem at all being accessible 24 hours a day to my clients 7 days a week because I simply don’t have that many clients. Knock on wood, the clients that I have respect normal hours. I don’t have, say, mentally ill clients who might call me at 3:00 a.m. drunk or clients who simply overwhelm me with the amount of legal needs they have. I’m very, very fortunate to be able to not have the work pressures that a lot of fellow lawyers have. That is not to say that there are times where I am stretched thin. I don’t have a backstop or help. I navigate those pinches the best I can.

I’m curious about the last 10 years. Has LCL’s “case load” remained stable? Has it gone down? Has it gone up? Has it skyrocketed?

Bibelhausen: It has steadily gone up. I joined LCL in 2005. And we helped 156 clients that year.  Last year, we helped almost 400.

ML InterviewerWhen you say help, that means somebody has contacted you asking for help, a single discreet person. They might have called 10 times. That doesn’t count as 10, that counts as 1?

Bibelhausen: Right, it counts as 1. They have to have actually access services. If somebody calls up and says, “I’d like to know where the AA meetings are that lawyers go to,” and we say, “Can we talk to you about other services, can we have someone meet you?” “No, no, just want to know where they are.” We don’t write that one down. There are certainly calls we take where we provide some information or something like that, but we don’t count that as a client.

ML Interviewer: You’ve mentioned services and you’ve mentioned that one of them is meeting with other lawyers who can help people who are in tight spots. You also mentioned the EAP program. What other services do you have?

Bibelhausen: Maybe a good way to talk about it is to look at the continuum when somebody comes in the door. We’ll listen to them to understand where we can be most helpful.

Let’s use the example of somebody who has called and said, “I’ve had some sort of thing happen in my life.” Maybe it’s a DWI, maybe it’s a personal decision: “I really need to look at my drinking.” Depending on circumstances, we may connect them directly with a treatment provider – if the problem is severe enough and they feel they’re ready for that option.  At any stage in these interactions,  some of our volunteers may become involved to offer support if that’s  what they want.

If they call and say, “I’m not sure if it’s an issue or it’s not,” then we will connect them with the EAP counselors to have an evaluation. If you know you have a problem and you’ve been drinking this much every day and these things have been happening, they don’t need to go find out if they have a problem. They’re ready. It really depends on where they’re at.

If it’s a drinking-type problem (sometimes it’s compulsive behavior, sometimes it’s a drug issue), we will also ask them if they’re interested in any sort of abstinence-based support which is usually AA, but there are alternatives out there. We’ll talk to them about that concept. Are they ready to go to some group support setting? If they are, we will find someone to take them to their first meeting. We’ll have a volunteer in recovery.

If they come to us and talk about things that an assessor might identify as a depression or anxiety disorder, we really don’t know what’s going to happen in that first conversation. We also don’t know how distressed they are. It might be that they’re just stressed. It might be that they really are in the depths of a serious depression or other mental illness. In that case, we’re going to connect them with the professional support first because the first time they explain everything , it’s got to be with someone who’s trained. We feel pretty strongly about that.

If they see one of the counselors, and they’re willing to sign a release and would like peer support, we can ask the counselor for guidance on whether peer support would be appropriate and helpful We’ll ask the counselor , “What kind of peer support do you think would be most successful?” Sometimes the counselor will say, “They’re not ready for that yet.”

Other times the counselor will  say, “We think that somebody who’s gotten some help for this kind of an illness who’s willing to talk about how it wasn’t the end of the world to say you needed help, would really support this person right now.”  Then we’ll make a volunteer connection. We’ll make sure that the volunteer has been trained either one-on-one or through one of the group trainings we have.  We may send some information to the volunteer and suggest they read it before talking to the client because it may give them some insight into the conversation they will be having.   It’s really individualized.

We will check back in with someone. “Did you get an appointment? Was it satisfactory? Do you feel like you’re making progress? What else do you think you could use right now? What changes happened in your life because of this? How’s it going?” We’ll just keep talking to them. At first , our check-ins  might be every day for a week. For others we may agree to connect again in a week.  If they say, “Thanks, I appreciate the referral. No, I’m not even going to give you my name,” that’s okay.

If they say that they want to talk to a peer supporter, those volunteers folks have been pledged to confidentiality. We will then share, “Joe meet Bob,” We’ll make connections as appropriate for each person’s situation.

We will then check in with the volunteer, “How’s this going for you?” A lot of times, people have been through something themselves and now they’re going to  talk about what it was like. “How is that for you? How are you doing with that? Are you okay? Does this work for you?” We’ll work to make sure that that connection is good for everybody. The fact that somebody got some help, decided to volunteer, doesn’t mean we’re done. We want to continue to support them.

If it’s a referral to treatment, we’ll try to stay in touch with them while they’re there.In a perfect world, we’ll be part of their discharge planning and have support in place when they leave.            In a perfect world, which it often isn’t, the day someone’s released from treatment, and this is just talking about substances, we’ll have a volunteer ready to take them to a meeting that day. That requires the willingness of both the treatment facility and the patient client of ours to say, “We’ll talk to each other.” Sometimes they’re not comfortable with that. That’s okay. We’re there to support people wherever they are.

Sometimes people will call with a problem and feel better just for talking about it.  They don’t take any next steps.  Then the pressure builds again and they cll with the same issue.  We will say the conversation is familiar and does it feel like they might like to do something differently this time.  We encourage those next steps.

ML Interviewer: Do you get calls from lawyers concerned about other lawyers?

Bibelhausen: Yes.

ML Interviewer: I’m wondering if you can tell me if that’s frequent and how those are handled.

Bibelhausen: The call may be from an anonymous caller who would like to talk with someone about how to talk to a friend or colleague or family member. We will ask  “What are you seeing? What would you like to say to them? How is it affecting you?” We’ll coach them through having that conversation all the way to facilitating interventions. Most of those are in the substance area, but we have done them when there appear to be other issues.one of the areas that is growing in the world but also in the legal profession, is cognitive impairment. In other words, as our profession ages, more and more of us are getting to the point where we’re more likely to have cognitive impairment issues . The most commonly known of these is Alzheimer’s disease.

If nobody’s really paying attention to that lawyer and they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, what happens? For example, we’ve had judges call us. We’ve had colleagues call us saying, “We don’t know what to do here.”

ML Interviewer: About someone else?

Bibelhausen: Right. We’ll try to assess it and then offer whatever level of service we can. The thing we have the most difficulty with is when somebody calls and says, “I want to tell you about somebody and they can’t know it’s me.” That’s okay. “But I want you to do something about it,” a caller might go on to request. We may send a letter or reach out in another way saying, “Somebody expressed some concern about you. We’re here to support you. We don’t know what it’s about, but someone cared enough about you to call us.” If you could use some help, we’re here. We don’t report to anybody. Maybe there’s some things going on in your life right now and we can help.”

That has ranged from people who maybe they recently have gone through some grief and they didn’t realize that it was coming out sideways and affecting their work. It’s been a wide range of issues. Sometimes family members call us. Sometimes colleagues who are in the same employer and sometimes colleagues outside of the same employer.   We also want to know if the caller might be adverse to the person they say they’re concerned about in any way. If so, we won’t reach out without corroboration.

ML Interviewer: There are a large number of underemployed or unemployed young lawyers. I take it they have access to this resource even though they’re not working lawyers. Is that right?

Bibelhausen: Yes. The way we define it is if you are in law school, have finished law school or are a lawyer who happens to be in Minnesota, you’re eligible for our services. In some states, because the Lawyers Assistance Program is part of the bar association, you have to be a bar member.

ML Interviewer: I’m also thinking about these lawyers in particular and others who would think, “I’m reluctant to call LCL because they have all these great services, but I can’t afford anything.” Do you provide assistance for these things? You’ve talked about services you’ve provided, some of which obviously you don’t bill them for, but some of which are expensive.

Bibelhausen: All of our services are free. We’ve got two ways to help with services beyond LCL. With the Affordable Care Act and MNSure, a lawyer who is low-income and has been for the recent past, may be eligible for medical assistance. Once you get on that, there may be fewer overall choices compared to private insurance, but there are good options. You’re going to be able to get help.

If you’re eligible for medical assistance, you can apply at any time and be covered on the 1st of the next month. . You could be on it by March 1st if you applied today. That has been a really good resource for a number of attorneys.

In addition, the person who has enough income to buy insurance,   may still have an extremely high deductible and co-pay. We have a need-based fund,  the LCL Founders Fund, that will help pay for services. We don’t have enough to pay for a month at some treatment  facilities, but there are options available.  This also applies to appointments with psychiatrists and similar professional services beyond the 4 free counseling sessions we provide.  We’ll work with what the person has for resources and we’ll work with the provider and we’ll use our Founders Fund to get them the help that they need.

Imagine the lawyer who’s  beginning practice or in a  fledgling practice and they’re depressed. They bought an insurance policy with a $10,000 deductible and a 40% co-pay. They come to us and can’t afford what they need Then, we might cover an initial appointment with a psychiatrist and some follow-up sessions, we can cover getting them started with some medications.  And we do it in a way that reduces their deductible.

Presumably, once somebody gets help, they’re going to be better able to then either bring in more clients, perform better  at their job, get a job, etcetera. It’s not an ongoing, forever thing. If they’re in that middle place where they’ve got enough income that they’re not going to qualify for medical assistance and they have a policy with big co-pays and deductibles, that’s where we can help.

People sometimes ask how LCL is funded –  how we provide free services.  When Minnesota lawyers pay their license fees, they support such things as the OLPR, CLE board and a lawyer assistance program.  As an independent non-profit, LCL has a grant agreement with the Minnesota Supreme Court to provide the lawyer assistance program which serves lawyers, judges, law students and immediate family members.  LCL must also raise a significant part of their budget, nearly $100,000 per year.  So of course if someone would like to donate to LCL, we’d be very grateful.  Donations may be made to LCL generally or be directed to the LCL Founders Fund which provides money for mental health, substance and other treatment services the lawyer would otherwise be unable to afford.

ML Interviewer: One thing I was curious about, and I did a little brief bit of Internet searching before this morning, was whether or not any lawyers were out there promoting themselves as recovering or sober lawyers or anything in Minnesota and I found none. That kind of surprised me, not that my search was exhaustive, to put it mildly. The recovery community is not small, as you know. I would imagine that there are clients out there who are in recovery and frankly might want to have a lawyer in recovery, not only to show their support, but also because that’s a lawyer who’s probably not a drunk. You know what I mean.

Bibelhausen: We get those calls. We get calls from people looking for a lawyer in recovery or often they’re looking for free legal services because we say our services are free and it’s a lawyer resource.

For somebody who is looking for a lawyer in recovery because they need a lawyer, we suggest that they go to some meetings and connect with others.  They can say, “I need a lawyer.” Somebody there may either have  used someone they recommend or there may be a lawyer who might be interested or is aware of colleagues who could meet the need.  Because we have not personally used the services of lawyers to represent us, we are not a referral service in that way.

ML Interviewer: I take it you’re unaware of any lawyers who are marketing themselves as a sober lawyer or a sober law firm or something like that.

Bibelhausen: Right. I know there are some who may note this in their bio on their firm site, but I don’t know that it comes up in an Internet search.

ML Interviewer: Are there any firms in Minnesota that stand out from your perspective in terms of supporting either your organization or lawyers in need or have particular programs that you would direct people’s attention to?

Bibelhausen: Probably not, but I think there are a lot of firms that really work hard to support lawyers so they can do their best work. There are also  some unhealthy organizations.

One of the things that has happened with the market tightening up is that people sometimes feel like they’re in survival mode even though they may be very secure. They see classmates and colleagues losing jobs and they don’t feel safe.

I think that being in a good workplace really depends on finding a good fit, identifying and utilizing good mentoring, figuring out what you’re best at and advocating for that. Lawyers advocate for our clients, but we don’t advocate for ourselves. Sometimes we’re afraid to. “If you can say  ‘Here’s how I  do my best work'” Rather than “here’s what I want,” it should go better for you.   Identify success and advocate for that.  You’re asking for the same thing, but you’re looking at it as you’re benefiting your employer.  These are the kinds of situations where we can coach people.

If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, using substances at an unhealthy level, you’re not going to feel that you can advocate for yourself. Maybe it’s feeling that way that got you to being depressed or anxious or using substances at an unhealthy level.

ML Interviewer: How did you get to where you are in your professional life?

Bibelhausen: I was a volunteer for LCL. I had a career that was a variety of things including working with people on their careers. I practiced law for a very short time. The fire in my belly was the people who were really hurting  –  “I can’t do this work anymore because it’s going to kill me.” I started getting much more involved with LCL. I did have some non-profit experience and I did have some outreach experience. In directing an organization, you need to have all of those.

It was about 20 years into my career that I started with LCL. I think much earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready for that job. It became the perfect job and it is. Before law school, I worked with people who were victims of domestic abuse and wasn’t ready to be exposed to that trauma. Then I came to work for LCL and realized that I was ready to be exposed to that trauma and to help people with it.

Lawyers are exposed to their clients’ trauma. We experience secondary and vicarious trauma which can be just as debilitating as going through the traumatic experience yourself. We need to take care of ourselves. The other professions that are exposed to that, counselors, law enforcement, they have ways of talking about it with each other. The legal profession doesn’t do much of that. That’s one of the reasons we have these levels of distress is because we don’t process what we’ve been exposed to and what we’ve experienced.

ML Interviewer: One of the most isolated jobs that lawyers have and probably ones that can sometimes be the most disturbing are judges. I take it your resources are open to judges and used by judges.

Bibelhausen: Yes. Judges seem pretty willing to call us. We’ve worked really, really hard to be seen as accessible and private.

ML Interviewer: Have you ever had any confidentiality breaches? Have you ever gotten into any hot water from that?

Bibelhausen: Even an AA meeting which is supposed to be confidential, you can’t make anybody not say something outside. We trust our volunteers. My colleagues and I around the country, we joke about how we have a toothbrush in our purse. If we were subpoenaed and told to give information about something, we would be held in contempt and we’d need our toothbrush.

I think the judges understand. In order for someone to ask for our records, a judge would have to say okay. That’s one of the things we educate the judges about is the importance of that confidentiality. They understand that if they needed to talk to somebody, it would be even more important. They respect that. We’ve never seen a judge who doesn’t feel strongly about that.

ML Interviewer: Is LCL required by state law to report people who call and disclose wrong-doing or potentially criminal misconduct?

Bibelhausen: Yes and no. We have one person who is licensed as a counselor. She doesn’t work as one but we insure her just in case. If we were ever to get sued, we want to be protected. We have insurance in place for that. Technically she is a -mandated reporter. As attorneys, the other case manager and I are not. But if we felt that somebody was, in fact, in danger, we would take steps to protect them. We’re not going to tell anybody that you called us except to save your life.

ML Interviewer: If somebody calls up and says, “I was out drunk driving last night and I was in a hit and run,” is that something where you have some obligation to report it to anyone or tell anybody?

Bibelhausen: Rule 8.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires that lawyers report another lawyers misconduct but Rule 8.3(c) says that any violation learned of through a lawyer assistance program is not required to be reported. The hit and run isn’t a violation of the rules. If the person called us and said that, obviously they’re looking for help. Eventually we’re going to do everything we can to get them to turn themselves in either to law enforcement. Where it most commonly comes to us is, “I’m going to be in ethical trouble.” “Let’s get you some help and then we’re going to help you find counsel.” We don’t provide lawyers for lawyers, but we’ll help you find counsel. We might point out, “If you self-report, maybe it will go better for you.” We’ve had that opportunity a number of times. We’ve never reported a lawyer.

ML Interviewer: Let’s close with a single message that you want to get out to the Minnesota bar.

Bibelhausen: We want people to know that we’re a safe place to come and that there’s no judgment, only hope. There are free services available. There are compassionate people who are ready to talk with any lawyer, judge or law student or their family members about whatever issue is causing them distress. It can be something ranging from a very, very serious concern all the way down to what might seem like a minor situation, but it’s causing stress today.  “. Any issue that is keeping somebody from feeling at their best, they don’t have to wait until a difficulty becomes a disability. What we really want people to know is it’s okay to call us. Other people are doing it.

The profession is starting to recognize that we need to take care of ourselves and each other. Sometimes that call has saved somebody else’s life and sometimes it can save your own.

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